Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Circle of Listening

In May of 2014, Juan Pablo Garcia of Monterrey, Mexico, had an exchange of ideas with the Civil Force State Police, because of a complaint that had been made to the Government of the State of Nuevo Leon, that nothing was being done for the boys in gangs. A Government official called Juan Pablo to ask about this public statement and set in motion a "Circle of Listening."

Juan Pablo had the idea to organize something between the police and gangs, but didn't know what to do. So he began to consult with me, and we both began to wonder what we could do with the gangs and the State police? After some days thinking about it and not reaching a satisfactory conclusion, I called a friend and colleague in the U.S.A.   

My friend said, "let me think about it and please call me back in three days." So on the third day, I called and the response was, put the gang members and police face to face, let them hear from each other in "Circles of Listening."  

This listening process was used in South Dakota, USA, to give Lakota people, indigenous to the region, a voice when they were seldom  heard by the dominant society. Lakota people formed an inner circle and European American participants sat in an outer circle and just listened, No interruptions, no justifications, no talk! Just silence for the listeners. For some, it recalled earlier indigenous processes where all were seated in a circle, one spoke at a time and all listened. 

So when I hung up, I began to search and read about the subject on the internet, finding enough literature to understand that it was a method of understanding, so two rivals, police and gang members, could communicate.

Juan Pablo and I talked and he came to the conclusion this process could be the first truce of peace between the two sides.

We had three meetings between soul, his wife, Luis Antonio Vázquez, Verónica Oseguera, Marcela Granados, David Hernandez, Abel Burciaga and Paula Palomo in different places where everyone contributed ideas to make this succeed.

JP then called in September on the Board of our organization with the specific purpose of making this reality. For four weeks between July and September I respected the design methodology of the event which was called "Circle Listening Forces United for Peace" and presented it at the two sessions we had. In these sessions we adopted the method in general and defined variables in how to carry it out as follows:
   - The number of members: 12 police and 12 gang members.
   - Moderator: Lety Benavides of Channel 7 TV Azteca
   - Place: Universidad Autónoma, school of psychology or research center.
   - Order: First talk to gang members and then police.
   - Truce: Signed the next day, after the circle of listening.
   - Place: Signed on the street in the neighborhood of the Rappers.             
   - Training: We decided to have a prior approach with gang members and police officers a week prior to the assignment of "Listening Circles"

On January 15 at 10 AM we started the program, gang members settled in the inner circle and the police officers outside. For 3 hours and 2 minutes, there was total order and no one spoke out of turn nor interrupted another. That was incredible! 

24 humans, thought to be enemies, listening to each other and what each had to say, to the questions and points that were raised. 

Lety Benavides, the moderator, masterfully led each of them in what they brought to the session, asking them questions that increased the internalized understanding of the gang members and police officers. And it all happened with fluency and freedom in language we all understand.

Marcela and I listened attentively. And she sent her ideas for questions to Lety, and she chose and was inspired by new issues that needed to be presented to 24 participants.

I think that Lety was choosing who would be the next of the exponents to speak, and I suspect that never using an order already preset but  random and uncertain was conducive to a positive group dynamic.

Juan Pablo, observers of NPT, Nancy and Luis Bonales (taking pictures), the civilian force commander Jorge Rivera and Elisa, all were very attentive without intervening following the event.

There was a recess of 15 minutes and following the break the policemen talked and gang members listened. Gang members sat in the outer circle and were silent. All listened to what every police member wanted to share from the previously asked questions and Lety continued removing from them more ideas and more feelings.

In general, the members of two gangs, Rappers and Palmeros told us the story of their lives, their vices, the absurdity of wasting time and not seeing the future, the desire to change and the complaint of the ill treatment received from the police.

The police generally heard different stories because they are police officers. The majority said that they were gang members and some few consumed drugs. Some few abused young people. But in general, most said they acted correctly and with the exception of two, who stated they had been violent because of frustration with the Clikas and wanted these gang members to change the course of their lives of crime and drugs.

After those three hours of listening, we retired to a private gathering; three members of NPT, three police, Marcela, Lety and I, to formulate the agreement between the parties. It took us about an hour and a half to discern and draft the truce.

We returned to the site of the circle of listening and Juan Pablo gave a reading of the agreements. They were approved.

The next day, in the afternoon, on the streets of the territory of the Rappers, the truce was signed between the police and the Clikas authorities and the corresponding Rappers and Palmeros. Having media present attested to the agreement.

For me the most important thing of this truce is not an end but the road that led us to it and most important, the following:
   • Willingness of participants.
   • Desire of the Clikas and their choice to change.
   • The use of a method of listening and not dialogue. The use of compassion through feelings.
   • Desire of the Civil Police Force to improve and change.
   • The long six-month leadership of the Clikas school.
   • The long seven months of preparation of the circle of listeners and the 7 days in advance preparation for the participants.
   • Having chosen correctly the moderator, Lety Benavides.
   • The humanist vision developing during the process of listening and understanding ourselves.
   • 24 wonderful beings that were opened to a constructive truth.
   • An NGO, NPT that wants to change the circumstances and enhance the status of young people and therefore of society.

     And hopefully this follows, later. I witnessed that we can change, and we have to continue working to see all of us more as human as problems occur, and that the only solution is the use of non-violence and the methods already proven, as love and compassion.

Fernando Ferrara
Monterrey, Mexico. January 15, 2015
Guest Blogger

Saturday, January 24, 2015

An Intimation of Human Connection

We begin with the horror, the sickening sense of despair for the lives lost, for the brutality and depravity that snatched them from among the living. Why, how to fathom what some would do in the name of God? We cry with those in France, with those in Nigeria, all who have seen the current horrors up so close, so many more in Nigeria, so much less outcry, its own question, why? We cry for the Jews of France, trembling with uncertainty. Joined with all, we struggle with questions of identity and identification, with and within ourselves, and with others, and not with others, or in part with others.

A Muslim colleague writing to his community in the aftermath of the tragedy in France expressed the horror, the sickness and despair as it plays out for him, as given focus through the lens of his identity: 

As-salamu Alaykum, 
I know that all of us here in Boston are deeply grieving the loss of life by fanatics in Paris and Nigeria. These extremists disgrace Islam, and Muslims worldwide have denounced their senseless violence…. I also know that many of us are simultaneously deeply frustrated that the acts of this tiny handful of extremists once again have raised doubts about the Mercy of God and this central tenant at the core of our faith. I feel this frustration myself. Yet, as opposed to remaining frustrated, it appears to me the Prophetic response to such tragedies is to channel that frustration into re-committing ourselves to being a Mercy to mankind….

As a reflection of God’s presence on earth, it is hard to be human. In the necessary comingling of identities, it is the larger reality that for Jews is expressed in the Yiddish lament, which, said with a sigh, is yet its own affirmation: shver tzu zein a Yid/it is hard to be a Jew. It is hard to be a Jew, to truly be a Jew, a mentch, a fine human being, to be rachmanim b’nei rachmanim/compassionate children of compassionate ancestors. It is indeed, therefore, our way of striving to be a “Mercy to (hu)mankind.” In the comingling of identities and ways of striving, the universal and the particular, no accident that mentch, as the highest goal of our striving as Jews, simply means a human-being. And in the ancient sigh with which the words are said, let us be honest, there also is in their essence the ever-renewed lament, why is it so hard sometime, so confusing, so dangerous to be a Jew in this world? But that is what we try to be and become as our way of being human in this world of striving.

At the outset of the weekly Torah portion following the attacks in France, the portion called Va’era (Ex. 6:2-9:35), God offers Moses further insight into God’s essence. God tells Moses, Ani/I am, sharing then the most holy name, formed of the Hebrew letters yud hey vav hey/I am HaShem. In common talk, Jews speak affectionately of HaShem/the Name, rather than speak, much less to write the holy letters of the Name. It is the “ineffable” name, the Shem Ha’M’forash, the unspoken, inexpressible name. It is also called most fully according to the essence of its meaning, the Shem Havaya/the Name of Being. The letters of God’s most holy name are simply the letters of the verb “to be,” but they are not the verb to be, and they are not a noun or a pronoun, neither male nor female, simply being, as in God’s image we all strive to be, to be able to say, I am….

It is no small thing to say, “I am.” It is an affirmation of our presence. It is about our essence, about what we stand for on this earth, how we stand and how we go through life in relation to God and people. For all of the right that I support and affirm of people to say and express themselves as they wish, I cannot say “je suis Charlie.” I can express another’s right with whom I disagree to speak their truth however unpleasant to me, and I understand that as underlying the slogan of support that has arisen in the face of horror, but I am not Charlie. I do not stand for the nastiness and the demeaning nature, however equitable in its disbursement, for which Charlie prides itself. I cannot identify with a masthead slogan that boasts, “Journal Irresponsable.” As a Jew, also demeaned on Charlie’s pages, I understand and appreciate the slogan of French Muslims, “I am not Charlie. But I am a Muslim against killing.” So too, I am not Charlie. But I am a Jew for free speech. And I struggle in seeking to be and become, with how to balance competing values. What about when speech becomes its own violence in shaping opinion to hate, as in the brutal Nazi cartoons in Der Sturmer, in another time and place? The right to express doesn’t necessarily make it right, or responsible, to express.

God’s name of being and becoming reflects God’s identity within our selves. Arranged vertically, the letters resemble the human form. We are created in God’s image, and in the image of God’s most holy name. For Jews, not a representation of God, not of Moses, that would most offend, but the desecration of the letters of God’s holiest name written in Hebrew, as given to Moses in the Torah. These holy letters carried on the streets and trod underfoot on the pages of a newspaper, God forbid, that is what would hurt so deeply. Pages containing these holy letters are to be cared for, not to be discarded or cast down, in the end only to be buried, like human beings in the end of their days, each one a reflection of God’s name and of the letters that tell of God’s being in the world, yud hey vav hey. To desecrate these letters is to desecrate both God and humanity.

God’s name is an intimation of human connection. Concern for the holy letters of God’s name is to be a reminder of concern for people, each one created in God’s image, each one a representation of God’s name. More than letters upon parchment or paper, it is God’s name and image in every human being that we are not to desecrate or hurt in any way, not to trample upon or disregard, not a single one, only to care for and to revere. That is the rest of my Muslim colleague’s message to his community, to affirm humanity and so to affirm God. Reaching beyond his despair, he then wrote:

At an individual level, let us re-commit ourselves to doing those little acts of kindness that make a big difference in the lives of people: feed the homeless, help a stranger cross the street, or help your neighbor shovel the snow…. At an institutional and community level, let us re-commit to becoming a benefit to our communities…; to address the homeless crisis, to help improve our public schools, and work with the city to provide more affordable housing….  May God help us move in this direction and keep us on the straight path.

Amen/Ameen, so may it be for all of us. Responding to the real needs of people is an antidote to despair, an affirmation of human identity, a reminder that each one is created in the image of God and of God’s name, not to be desecrated, each one precious.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Monday, January 19, 2015

Satyagraha Institute

A new opportunity is developing for those who might be interested in deepening their knowledge and skills in nonviolence, as well as accessing deeper spiritual resources and a network of others to carry it out. 

The Satyagraha Institute is planned for August 2-22 in the Black Hills of South Dakota, USA. Applications for the program are now being accepted. There are spots for twenty participants. It will be an international and intercultural gathering. Interested persons are encouraged to go to the web site for information about faculty, how to apply, and how to support the program in other ways.
The mission statement follows.
Our world suffers for lack of leaders rooted in the traditions of nonviolence. When conflicts arise, many leaders teach us to wield threats, coercion, and harm. When unfamiliar perspectives disturb, many leaders rally us to certainty and defensiveness. When decisions must be made, many leaders encourage us to value self-interest, immediacy, and possession. As we follow these guides, the fabric of our community weakens, and life becomes more difficult for ourselves and others. Satyagraha Institute works to create a different future by training leaders in the traditions of nonviolence.
Mohandas Gandhi, who famously experimented with the possibilities of nonviolence, coined the Sanskrit term satyagraha to identify a method of social change. Gandhi proposed that satya (truth) combined with agraha (firmness) creates a useful social power that does not rely on harming others. Gandhi often referred to this power as “truth-force.”
Satyagraha is an adherence to truth as it unfolds. Since many perspectives are necessary in order to see what is true, satyagraha offers a way to create change that recognizes both our incomplete understanding of any given situation and the wisdom that others have to share. It is a way of directly engaging with others to work out the difficult aspects of life without resorting to coercion, harm, or ill intention. Satyagraha is the social power which arises when we act with kindness, respect, patience, generosity, and service.
Key components of satyagraha include:
• Changing ourselves as a means of changing the world
• Touching our adversary’s heart as a means of changing the world
• Maintaining kind intentions without exception
• Attempting to refrain from harming others
• Offering selfless service
• Employing means consistent with the ends we desire
• Nurturing systems that value nondiscrimination and respect
• Dismantling harmful institutions, while simultaneously building supportive institutions to take their place
Satyagraha Institute promotes the understanding and practice of satyagraha as a method for social change. Our goals are:
• To explore the variety of spiritual and cultural traditions of nonviolence, and to highlight the wisdom that these traditions bring to the practice of satyagraha.
• To train people how to create social change using the principles and tools of satyagraha.
• To strengthen the community of practitioners, teachers, and future leaders who are committed to experimenting with satyagraha in their work.
If this mission resonates with your interests and commitments, we encourage you to contact us.
Carl Kline, Program Coordinator

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Butterfly Effect

Years ago, I was sitting in my parents home in Nebraska. My father and I had just had a heated exchange about an issue of the day. I knew he was mellowing with age because he didn't have to have the last word and simply withdrew from the conversation. As I sat there across from him, I noticed that his feet were turned inward. He always appeared pigeon toed as he sat. Then I happened to look at my own feet and saw they were turned in as well. At that age, it was a moment of stark horror for me. I began to wonder what else I had inherited from him. What else was there influencing me in subtle and unknown ways?

There was a high school teacher who shaped me as well. It wasn't nature, but nurture. He was able to sense a gift I had that he could strengthen. In doing so, he moved me out of some of my self destructive behaviors into more constructive ones. It's doubtful I could have articulated his contribution to my life at the time, but it's quite apparent to me now. 

I often wondered how the world would be different if a teacher like mine had been able to reach Lee Harvey Oswald when he was younger. Would President Kennedy have been assassinated? Would we have had so many killed in Vietnam? How might a few acts of kindness and a little mentoring changed human history?

Often we aren't aware of the influence on us of those around us. We aren't often aware of how we influence others. Those influences are only revealed in time; perhaps never.

I'm thinking about all of this because of the book I'm reading. It's The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb. Part one of the book is titled "Butterfly." It refers to the "butterfly effect" in chaos theory. As described by Wikipedia, "In chaos theory the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state." In other words, the exact details of a hurricane may well be influenced by the flapping of the wings of a butterfly weeks earlier.

The book doesn't spend a lot of time focusing on butterflies. The primary focus is the Columbine School shooting in Littleton, CO. I remember the event well. It put me out of commission for two to three days. Our daughter was teaching in the Denver public schools at the time so it made me doubly disturbed. Also, several of us were doing conflict resolution work in the public schools. We were convinced such killings didn't need to happen. We were implementing programs that helped young people with their conflicts and hates. Schools only needed to provide more time and energy for helping them build conflict resolution skills, become aware of their biases and develop programs of peer mediation. 

I haven't finished the book. There are 729 pages and I'm on page 412. But it's quite clear that the butterfly effect is at work in the story and what happens at Columbine has an impact far into the future, exponentially in some instances.

If only we could learn that it's all related. Contrary to seeing everything centered in chaos, creation is one harmonious whole. It functions like a great symphony with more instruments and voices than we can imagine. What happens in one part of the orchestra effects what happens in another. And if some voices are out of harmony, the music isn't that great.

How you and I behave in one circumstance for good or evil has consequences someplace, maybe everyplace. I'm sure those Columbine shooters had no idea they would make me temporarily dysfunctional in Brookings, SD when they went on their killing spree. But from what we know of their utter rage and intentions, it would likely make them quite happy.

A good friend in Mexico was telling me about the way his country is tied economically to the U.S. He said when the U.S. coughs, Mexico comes down with pneumonia. Little do we recognize in our privileged status that when Wall Street has to be bailed out, whole societies in other lands collapse. When we put shredded coconut in our cake in the U.S., children in India fall ill for want of tender coconut milk. It's all related. 

Part of our problem in the U.S. is our individualism. Instead of working to moderate ego we try and enhance it. Instead of thinking about others first, we succor a "me" generation. Instead of recognizing the necessity of social salvation, we focus on individual salvation. We don't often recognize the focus on self has a butterfly effect. In time, those flapping wings can either cool a burnt brow or blow the other away.

Carl Kline

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

For the Sake of Reconciliation, Returning to the Prior Question

In a world so frayed and torn asunder with discord and strife, one of the great challenges is to seek and shape a path of reconciliation. It is for all of us, every citizen of every nation, to help shape that path, to help find another way. We cannot wait for others to do or be just as we would wish. We need to reach out to them nevertheless. The imperative is to act even unilaterally for the sake of justice and peace, to act bravely and boldly, and by our action to encourage and stimulate the action of others toward a greater good. At the very least, the first challenge is to avoid acting in ways that will inevitably bring out the worst in the other, that we at least not block the path to reconciliation. Thoughts about reconciliation have been churning within me, stimulated by the Torah portion called Vayigash (Gen. 44:18-47:27), the portion read during the week of international controversy surrounding the new film, The Interview.

I am generally not a culture critic, certainly not of movies, of which I see very few in the course of a year. I follow life as it unfolds through Torah, and I follow Torah as it unfolds through life, in each case trying to see the underlying teaching as expressed in ways both noble and base. Too often in learning Torah, a caution, perhaps, for all readers of sacred scripture, we fail to learn the lessons that underlie the narrative, failing to ask the right questions, not of the text so much as of ourselves. In the case of Torah, what else could Abraham have done, what else could Jacob have done? What would I do? Reading Torah as offering timeless paradigms, the question indeed becomes, what do I do? Does violence done by sword or statute accord with the underlying values that course through Torah from God’s first gentle breath upon the water? Do I cry out, do I protest against the moral inconsistencies in the texts of my life, seeking return to professed ideals? In the streets and squares of our cities, so in the events, the words and ways surrounding a movie as it plays out in social context. In responding to an ugly act of aggression in the form of hacking we have become distracted, we have lost the prior question; why is it funny to present the assassination of a recognizable world leader as entertainment?

The goal in regard to North Korea should be to reduce tension, not to enflame, to seek peace, not war, to truly put an end to the Korean War these many decades later, to seek the path of reconciliation. I do not challenge free speech and expression, the right to make such a film and to see it now. The prior question is one of appropriateness, why make such a film? What does it mean to want to see such a film and laugh? Among the many voices in the plethora of articles appearing amidst the controversy, I was struck by the insight of an 11-year old who had seen the film and thought it was funny, but then stepped back and acknowledged why North Koreans might not like it, saying simply, “they make fun of North Korea a lot.” Most adults whose voices become part of the social commentary are far from the path of reconciliation, emphasizing the right to see whatever they like, that no one will tell us what to do, even that it is a “patriotic duty” to see the film. So too, the president lost sight of the prior questions, and of the larger context in which we need to ask such questions.

Whether in fact guilty of the hacking, or simply through its own angry rhetoric regarding the film, North Korea has responded in a way that is already the premise of the film, that violence in word or deed is a legitimate expression of one’s hostility toward another. The premise of wanting to meet someone in order to kill that person fuels an endless cycle of violence. Beyond entertainment, the film furthers a way of looking at the world and others that needs to change if the cycle of global violence will ever be broken. Toward reconciliation, the journalists granted an interview with North Korea’s leader, itself an expression of change and possibility, could have refused the CIA’s dastardly request to assassinate him, offering instead a lesson in what it means to honor trust and seek another way. There is a certain irony in the very title of the film, The Interview. Different than our pedestrian use of the word, its parts point to the prior questions. “Inter-“ suggests between, among; together, mutual, reciprocal. “View” as to do with seeing, looking, “sight or vision; especially range of vision; manner of regarding or considering something; judgment, opinion….” The challenge is to see with broader vision, to consider how our own seeing influences the way we are seen, leading us to cultivate a vision that allows for reciprocity by including the other.

It is the way that is taught in the Torah portion Vayigash. Judah stands before the Viceroy of Egypt, whom he doesn’t yet realize is his own brother Joseph. Pleading on behalf of his youngest brother, Benjamin, Judah approaches; vayigash elav Yehudah/and Judah approached him. It is a stirring moment in which Judah facilitates the possibility of reconciliation among the brothers, humbly speaking the truth of what has been, thereby allowing a different future to emerge from a tormented past. At the beginning of his commentary to this portion, Rabbeinu Bachya, weighing in from thirteenth century Spain, cites a verse from the Book of Proverbs (15:1), a gentle response allays wrath; a harsh word provokes anger. Rabbenu Bachya then teaches that a person should nurture their soul and train their nature and speech in the way of gentle response, for the gentle response quiets and calms the anger of one who is angry. It is a teaching that illumines one of the essential dynamics of nonviolence as a way of human interaction and change.

In two midrashim on the opening verse of this portion, the rabbis explore the dynamics of approaching others, asking about reason, motive, and way. In one midrash, positive and negative possibilities are offered on the nature of people approaching each other, haggasha l’milchamah/approaching for battle; haggasha l’fiyus/approaching for reconciliation; haggasha l’t’filah/approaching for prayer. Subsequently, another midrash is offered, as though with a sigh, desperate to raise people up, to comfort. The second midrash is emphatic, almost pleading to make its message so, ayn l’shon “vayigash,” eleh l’shon shalom/the word vayigash is only a word of peace…. And so they continue, it is only a word of comfort…, it is only a word of drawing near to make an offering…, it is only a word of drawing near to rebuke. In the way that Judah gently engages in, rebuke is regarded here as a way of bringing someone back to a place of repair and wholeness, thus for the sake of making amends, for facilitating reconciliation.

May we even now return to the prior questions in regard to a film, as in regard to Torah and life, and in learning to approach others in a different way open a path toward reconciliation, toward wholeness and peace.

Victor H. Reinstein